The most illuminating example of therapeutic play I’ve heard was one that infant expert Magda Gerber shared. She had been asked to visit a child care center, and while touring the infant playroom with the center director she noticed one of the children holding a spoon and placing the tip at the opening of a baby doll’s bottom. The director also noticed, and she corrected the boy, “No, that goes in the mouth.” She demonstrated for him, taking the spoon away and holding it up to the baby doll’s mouth. As she returned to her discussion with Magda, the boy repeated his previous action. Again, the director stopped and corrected him.
It was late in the day, and the parents were beginning to arrive. The boy’s mother was one of the first. She picked up her boy and as she was leaving, stopped to say to the director, “Oh, I forgot to tell you this morning that poor Johnny had to have an enema at the doctor’s yesterday. He didn’t like it at all.”
Hundreds of studies prove the awesome benefits of play, and as Magda’s experience illustrates, one of the most profound is its use as a natural and powerful self-therapy tool. Children use play instinctively to process both environmental stress and inner-conflict. Play therapy helps them to make sense of confusing and bothersome events they might have been exposed to, eases worry and fear. It’s especially valuable in the early years, before children can verbalize their feelings. Children “play out” disturbing feelings when they can’t tell us what’s wrong or ask us “What’s that?” or “Why?”
To encourage play therapy…
1. Let go of judgment, expectations and play agendas
Let play belong to your child. Rather than interfere as the director in Magda’s example did (interesting that the boy persisted anyway), allow your child to be playwright, director and lead actor when he plays. Relegate yourself to set design by creating a safe, enriching environment with open-ended, simple toys and objects where your baby can explore and experiment. Then let him mess it up and redesign as he wishes. Never interrupt unnecessarily.
2. Take it outdoors whenever possible
Create a safe, enclosed outdoor play space with a chair and table nearby where you can relax (and maybe even do a little work) while you baby enjoys the enhanced therapeutic benefits of fresh air and nature. When the weather cooperates, move your life outdoors. Your children will sleep better, play better and even eat better. As a friend of mine once noted, “Food tastes better outside.”
3. Nurture the self-directed play habit
Play is a natural inclination for babies and they love it, but it’s up to us to begin the habit – to make it an essential part of their day. Young infants can (and will) let us know when they need to be held, but it is nearly impossible for a months-old baby to indicate “I’d like a little time to move freely and do what I want”. And doing what I want is the key to play therapy.
Begin by placing an infant on her back and observing her response. If the baby complains tell her you hear her, ask her what she needs and if she wants to be picked up. Don’t jump the gun. Sometimes, like all of us, a baby just wants us to listen and try to understand. Brief episodes of this kind of “play” in which your baby might look around, stretch and twist, experiment with the workings of her limbs and study her fascinating hands will extend into longer periods. Your baby’s self-directed play soon becomes the highlight of your day together.
4. Watch, learn and appreciate
Most therapeutic play is far less obvious than the example of the boy and the spoon, especially before children are able to talk. Usually it’s below the radar, undetectable to us. We’re left wondering what our babies might be processing, if anything. And that will remain a mystery. But since birth itself is stressful, even the youngest infants could conceivably have issues to work through. Honing our observation skills helps us detect the more subtle examples.
In a recent class, a 16 month old toddler did something I’ve never seen before. She recently became a big sister and was separated from her mother for several days due to complications during the birth.
We have a row of three large wooden boxes in the RIE playroom. One of them has a round hole cut out at the top. This little girl took the largest baby doll and managed to push it down through the hole, which wasn’t easy. And she did it again. And again. And again. Hmmm…
I share more about the power of self-directed play (and how to encourage it) in
(Photo by Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr)